In 2010, Raytheon, a major U.S. defense contractor, unveiled the XOS 2, a robotic exoskeleton which imbued wearers with the power to effortlessly lift hundreds of pounds. Designed to be used by the military, the development of XOS 2 drew significant media attention and was even dubbed by Time Magazine as one of the 50 best inventions of the year.
Now, fast-forward 10 years later, and one observes interest coming from firms outside of the military as well.
How is this relevant to workers themselves during the burgeoning age of blue-collar exoskeletons?
“All of a sudden we see that those capabilities are also valuable in traditional blue collar work. So, traditional jobs where, you know, how fast you are or how strong you are really dictates your job performance and how well you succeed … These exoskeletons are being developed by the private sector for those types of jobs,” Gavin Kirkwood, a researcher in UCSB’s Department of Communication, said.
As private companies and blue collar workers grapple with a future marked by the entrance of exoskeletons — potentially alleviating the demands of physical labor in many occupations — researchers at UCSB are trying to understand what that means for workers, and what might make workers more open to a change of such magnitude in their own workplace.
Because, after all, how does the nature of work change when one’s own nature may have to change to accommodate a machine?
And going beyond that, how do people change what they think of themselves and their work when they’re doing their heavy lifting surrounded by a metal shell?
“We know that when it comes to technology adoption in organizations is that people are really sensitive to types of technologies that change how they identify with their work … or the type of job satisfaction that they get,” Kirkwood said.
“So you can see how in these traditional blue collar industries, the adoption of exoskeletons is really changing the way things work, and even changing what types of workers you would want in this position.”
Kirkwood, Christopher Otmar and Mohemmad Hansia, brought interpersonal adaptation theory (IAT) to breach such questions from the academic lens and hopefully shed some light on how work will evolve as humans find themselves in the company of coworkers made of metal and wires, rather than just flesh and bones.
IAT is an assortment of various theories and frameworks intended to understand social interactions. In particular, the researchers brought forth aspects of IAT dealing with nonverbal communication in order to understand how humans and exoskeletons may achieve greater synchrony in movement, as well as what preferences humans themselves may have with regards to the nature of coordinated movement.
In order to inform their work using IAT, Kirkwood and his collaborators have been using data from research focusing on a confidential proprietary exoskeleton at Virginia Tech.
“We’ve been analyzing interviews of people who are using an early model of the suit. And it’s interesting to see the type of people that want the suit to just automatically move with them, and that makes them feel like they’re in more control over what they’re doing, versus the people who liked to feel like they actually have more control in terms of initiating movements,” Kirkwood said.
But there are also other issues bubbling up alongside the question of whether to embrace a more natural and unconscious synchrony versus one that is more conscious and deliberate, some of which are challenges to even the mere adoption of exoskeleton technology.
Most obviously, there are practical constraints imposed on those who use exoskeletons, and there is a degree of functionality that must be achieved to make it worth using them. Humans in exoskeletons, for instance, tend to be clumsier than those outside of them, at least in the present moment.
There are also psychological quandaries which serve as obstacles to widespread adoption, according to Kirkwood.
“So when we’re thinking about strategic synchrony it’s like, ‘Is something like fear of technology, going to keep workers from wanting to synchronize with the machine, or using it as it was designed?’,” Kirkwood said.
“So it kind of boils down to like the wearer’s perception, how they’re thinking about the machine, and what they desire when they’re using the machine.”
But one can even go further than that, Kirkwood argued, because in addition to how users will feel about exoskeletons, and how they may prefer to use exoskeletons, another important part of the equation is how exactly how workers may affiliate with the machines in a work context and what sort of relationship may exist between workers and exoskeletons.
And all of this is different — and perhaps more useful — research than social scientists working with new technology generally do, Kirkwood argued, because it’s in anticipation of a widespread change in how people and workers interact with technology, rather than a reaction to change which has already happened.
“Often one of the biggest problems — especially in the social sciences — is that we’re really too reactive. Research about Facebook didn’t happen until like several years after Facebook was actually being used by groups of people,” Kirkwood said.
“It’s kind of neat where I see the relationship between social science researchers and industry. They need to be collaborating with each other so that we can help anticipate what might be some problematic issues before people start using [new] technology.”